What’s On the French Cinema Horizon in 2022?

Amid teen meanderings, Lincon Center’s French film festival offers some grown-up bite—and even the hope of a Balzac revival 


Rendez-vous! Lincoln Center’s annual buffet of what’s current and courant in French cinema has always toggled between helpfully showcasing films that can’t be guaranteed an official U.S. release—for various marketing/cowardice reasons, usually—and high-profile movies already snatched up and thereby fetching an extra smooch of prerelease PR. The current 27th edition follows the template and pretty handily reveals a nation’s Zeitgeisty frame of mind: tense with diversity issues, consumed with generational angst, uneasy about its relationship with the rest of the world.

 Film by film, it’s a melange, of course. Rachel Lang’s Our Men (Mon Légionnaire) stands out by surveying uncommon territory—the quotidian life of modern Foreign Legion soldiers and their wives, at home and in Mali. (The legacy of Claire Denis’s Beau Travail, from 23 years ago, is locked in through a cameo by Grégoire Colin as a senior officer.) Thorny, visually unpredictable, and scrupulously attentive to the procedural work of the modern army, Lang’s movie focuses on two couples: a young ready-to-rock Russian emigre (Aleksandr Kuznetsov) and his demure bride-to-be (Ina Marija Bartaité), and a seasoned officer (Louis Garrel) and his weary wife (Camille Cottin). 

The military husband/neglected wife story arcs are familiar, but Lang’s approach is not, briskly sketching out the family dynamics, and neglecting war-mission plotting (the troops are hunting down the Saharan Islamic State) in favor of the deadpan irony of the mega-state military machine fighting a small-potatoes asymmetric war in the desert, where there doesn’t seem to be much to fight for.

Thierry de Peretti’s Undercover (Enquête sur un scandale d’État), loosely based on a recent Parisian narco squad scandal, is a messier affair, sober but hectic and untrackable, the way real scandals can be, involving an undercover agent rising in the cartel ranks (Roschdy Zem), his department head (Vincent Lindon), whose covert operations have morphed into an outright smuggling empire, and the Liberation journalist (Pio Marmaï) who colludes with Zem’s compromised semi-cop to expose the racket. It’s odd that virtually every top-secret conversation takes place in a busy restaurant or bar, but otherwise, the film’s obliqueness makes you lean in—even the opening disclaimer, about the story being “fictional,” is meant ironically. A working familiarity with the real François Thierry affair would be a boon; the rest of us have to squint to make the connections.

 Many of the series’ high-profilers were not yet allowed to be link-screened for review, including new films by Claire Denis, Jacques Audiard, and Mathieu Amalric. More’s the pity, unless those films happen to dawdle in the ubiquitous kiddie pools of teenage angst, a global tendency that’s both probably inevitable, demographically speaking, and tiresome nonetheless. Axelle Ropert’s Petite Solange hews close to the doe-eyed-but-dull Jade Springer as her mismatched parents (lovely stage diva Lea Drucker, homunculus-like comb-over wreck Philippe Katerine) slowly divorce, leaving us with a generic and limp microdose of poutiness that’s leavened a bit by the local flavor of the port city of Nantes, and its accompanying color box hints of Jacques Demy.

Emilie Carpentier’s The Horizon is better, if only for the radiant hub of Tracy Gotoas, whose blue-cornrowed visage and sunrise smile make the film easy to live in. Gotoas plays an 18-year-old student and nursing home intern who gets distracted from her youthful esprit by a hunky classmate (Sylvain Le Gall), who’s an ardent anti-development activist and green-commune proselytizer, leading our watchful heroine into the muddy waters of anti-establishmentarianism. Carpentier’s film tends to get preachy about the green stuff, and has little narrative structure (filmmakers, and not just in France, seem to think that films about teenagers have to be as vague and plotless as actual teenage thoughts), but the textures of family are richly captured (the heroine’s mother Skypes in from Senegal, where she too is battling development), and Gotoas is, for the moment, a star.

Vincent Maël Cardona’s Les Magnétiques (Magnetic Beats) is centered on Thimotée Robart’s shy teen, a pirate DJ whiz in his obnoxious older brother’s shadow, circa 1981, as he gets drafted into military service (shipped out to Cold War Berlin) and pines for his brother’s not-so-interesting booty call back home. Meandering like a driverless car, the film makes the most of its oddball hero and its few gusts of ’80s punk-pop, but in the end the predictabilities accrue. The heroine of Charline Bourgeois-Tacquet’s Anaïs in Love, on the other hand, is 30 but looks and acts like a high school ditz; the actress, Anaïs Demoustier, is in fact an adorable pixie, but the film wanders with the character—she’s always running, breathlessly—from one romance to another, to a stalker-like pursuit of a celebrity author played rather regally by Valeria Bruni Tedeschi. Charm is thick on the ground, but so’s over-effervescence; even an abortion is just another goofy episode Demoustier chatters through.

Thankfully, the French still make movies about grown-ups, though too often they’re tackling contemporary social issues and thereby scouring already well-worn areas. Emmanuel Carrère’s Between Two Worlds (Le Quai de Ouistreham) synopsizes like a crummy TV movie—a writer (Juliette Binoche) goes undercover as a cleaning-service worker to see “what it’s really like”—and, let’s face it, nobody thought to film Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed when it came out over 20 years ago. But despite the sermonistic set-up and a subtly patronizing attitude toward the uneducated working class—their chitchat tends to be a wee too simplistic—the movie lands a punch or two, as Binoche’s snoop begins unexpectedly, and almost tragically, to get invested in work friendships with younger women who seem to have nobody but each other. 

Constance Meyer’s Robust merely casts its gaze on the aging grumpiness of an obese movie star like Gérard Depardieu, played by Gérard Depardieu, whose new bodyguard/babysitter is a young Black woman (Déborah Lukumuena) who’s nearly as large as he is. It doesn’t seem as though a point is being made about body size, beyond the jeopardy it can offer you at any age, but as a worlds-colliding oddball matchup, its reluctance to dramatize identity differences is refreshing.

From there, we have the modern way of death, as François Ozon’s Everything Went Fine (Tout s’est bien passé) closely follows mid-age goddess Sophie Marceau as her troublesome dad (André Dussollier) awakens from a serious stroke and announces that he wants a nice, legal assisted death, stat. It’s not that easy, of course, and the emotional pitch is high, to which the cast brings its A-game (especially Hanna Schygulla, as the euthanasia coordinator). 

Marceau, whose lovely mug has gone splendidly grave with the years, is always fascinating, and Ozon knows how to frame a scene, so you hold your breath waiting for what comes. But the based-on-a-memoir drama is one-note and kinda unfresh, at least until the third act, when Marceau and her sister (a quietly outstanding Géraldine Pailhas) just huddle helplessly as non-nature takes its course.

All of which can make you lean toward the more complicated stuff—like Christophe Honoré’s Guermantes, an ever-shifting meta-lark built out of a theater company’s very real but very pandemic-canceled plans to stage a Proust play, helmed by guest director Honoré. (The title comes from the Guermantes family in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.) There’s no documentary to speak of: The “rehearsals” continue alongside arguments about why the cast should bother, all of it staged for the often visible cameras, and the “reality” of the heavily bonded troupe of actors mixes with the play itself, sometimes in mid-scene. 

Eventually, the mingling strands are shot like a “normal” movie, and along the way you get a virtual bath in the intimacy and solidarity of a collective creative enterprise. More than a little self-aggrandizing, and self-reflexively reminiscent of Honoré’s best film, 2006’s Dans Paris, Guermantes is also perhaps the first pandemic-set film I’ve seen that manages to muster a genuine sense of élan and life love amid the ruins, no small feat.

Antoine Barraud’s Madeleine Collins is a delightfully tense nail-biter, as Virginie Efira strides through a gender-reversal of an oddly uncommon scenario, in film and real life: the juggling maintenance of two separate families, and two different identities. Efira’s high-strung edge-walker lies about work travel and bounces between Paris, where she’s the trophy wife of a conductor (with suspicious sons), and Switzerland, where she lives far more modestly with a younger man and a tiny daughter who may or may not be hers. Barraud expertly leaks in story information, about who’s who, who knows what, and how in hell the situation came to be, and as pressure mounts and the deceptions unravel, the film deepens into a study of manic compulsion we never quite saw coming.

Nor should we have expected the literate richness of Xavier Giannoli’s Lost Illusions (Illusions perdues), paring down Balzac’s biggest book into its brutally cynical narrative armature, in which the lovesick and naive poet-hero (Benjamin Voisin) lands in a Restoration-period Paris that has become a seething rat pit of cultural corruption. His rise and fall has doomy inevitability, as he succumbs to the venery baked into the newly thriving industries of publishing, newspapers, and theater, all of it utterly controlled by bribery, blackmail, betrayal, manufactured controversy, and mercenary publicity. Feverishly read reviews, of anything, are pro or con depending on who’s paying; reputations and book sales are built on scandal; rivalries are crafted until they become life-destroying media brawls. 

The film may look like a typical candlelight-and-crinoline period drama, but the social portrait, of souls sold for pocket change, is scathing, abetted by the heavy use of Balzac’s conspiratorial voice as narration. Saying it’s gripping and eloquent enough to maybe trigger a Balzac revival is saying plenty.

Rendez-Vous with French Cinema
March 3-13
Walter Reade Theater